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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Celebrating Vermont downtowns and their strength

Preservation Trust of Vermont hosts annual conference in Wilmington

WILMINGTON—The Preservation Trust of Vermont gave awards to five Wilmington organizations and individuals at its annual conference held on June 8 in Wilmington’s Town Hall.

The trust commended Friends of the Valley Foundation, Wilmington Vermont Fund, Flood Stock, Deerfield Valley Rotary, and Lisa Sullivan and Philip Taylor of Bartleby’s Books for their collective work in rebuilding Wilmington after Tropical Storm Irene.

“Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, is a day that will forever be remembered in many parts of Vermont,” wrote the Trust in its awards narrative. “In Wilmington, local residents, second home owners, business owners and visitors literally stood by and watched the raging Deerfield River rise and take over their village as a result of the torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene.

“We have all heard and seen the stories of what happened – buildings flooded or washed away, roads collapsed, businesses destroyed, people left homeless. The collective response to the flood, and the immediate effort and effectiveness to rebuild, demonstrates a deep commitment to partnership and perseverance in the name of the greater community.”

The Friends of the Valley Foundation, founded by Lynn Bucossi, Kevin Ryan, and Chris Zizza, provide community members with scholarships for camps and colleges and grants for a person or family in a crisis situation. After Irene, the foundation worked toward rebuilding the severely flooded North Star Bowl bowling alley on Route 100. The team has also pledged to help rebuild Dot’s Restaurant.

Also committed to Dot’s, Tamara and Daniel Kilmurray, second home owners in the area for more than 10 years, started the Wilmington Vermont Fund with a donation of $250,000. According to the Trust, the foundation purchased the Parmelee & Howe Building at the corner of Route 9 and Route 100 north, and provided financial resources to businesses.

“These are not just businesses they are people’s lives,” said Daniel Kilmurray.

In a separate interview, board member John Gannon said the fund hopes to find a tenant for Parmelee & Howe after it completes renovations. The challenge, he said, is attracting someone with the business savvy to build a business in Wilmington’s cyclical economy.

Businesses struggling

Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, is also involved with the Wilmington Vermont Fund. She said that new business owners must commit to producing an “outstanding product” to attract customers. Vermont does well in producing quality and Wilmington will strengthen overtime, she said.

Wilmington and Dover’s economies are primarily tourism-based. Manwaring suggested that new entrepreneurs build non-tourism based businesses.

“It needs to happen,” she said. “Not just here [but across Vermont], but we’re working for here.”

Manwaring asserted that saving struggling businesses requires a sea change in Vermont. After Irene, recovery resources have flowed mostly to homeowners. The state and funding agencies place businesses into the “rubric of economic development.” Businesses owners receive loans, and rarely receive grants, as homeowners do.

In Vermont, most business owners are individual owner/operators struggling as much as independent homeowners, she said.

At issue, said Manwaring, is that “businesses don’t vote, and homeowners do.”

If the state wants to build jobs it needs to support businesses, she added.

The fund has raised more than $475,000 with a goal of $3 million.

Award-winners John and Rachel Pilcher and the restaurant owners of Apres Vous, Steve and Chris Jalbert, conceived Flood Stock the night Irene hit the valley. The two-day music festival raised $76,000 to save as many jobs and stores within the historic downtown as possible.

Working in partnership, wrote the trust, the Deerfield Valley Rotary and the Wilmington Vermont Flood Relief Fund, established by Adam Palmiter, funded repair expenses and replacement costs for businesses hit by Irene. Donations came from across the county and 100 percent were awarded to businesses in Wilmington, Dover, and Whitingham.

The trust also awarded business owners Lisa Sullivan and Phil Taylor. The couple never tired or stopped helping their neighbors despite losing their book store, The Book Cellar, to an April 2011 fire at the Brooks House in Brattleboro, and then watching Irene flood their second store, Bartelby’s Books on Route 9 in Wilmington, said the trust.

The Trust honored eight other preservation and community efforts across the state. Winners included Housing Vermont and Springfield Housing Unlimited for the preservation and rehabilitation of the Ellis Block in Springfield; Larry and Lise Hamel for the restoration of the Hardwick Inn; the town of Bristol for the restoration of Holley Hall; Birgit Deeds of Shelburne Farms, Patricia O’Donnell of Heritage Landscapes, and Doug Porter of Porter and Associates for Shelburne Farms Formal Garden restoration project; Town Hall Theater, Inc., for the Town Hall Theater, Middlebury; David Clem and the Wilder Center, Inc. for restoring the 1890 Congregational Church in Wilder; and the Putney Historical Society, Lyssa Papazian, Jeff Shumlin and Ming Chou for the Putney General Store.

A community’s heart

“Disaster recovery takes a long time,” said Stuart Comstock-Gay president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation during his opening remarks.

Disasters that rip into the heart of a town can threaten the community’s heart, he said.

Moving forward involves a combination of “preserving what we have and making it better,” he said.

Pointing to what Waterbury calls the “gift of the Little River dam,” Comstock-Gay said thoughtful planning post-disaster can protect a community’s future.

The 83-year old dam protected Waterbury from complete destruction during Irene, he said.

Long-term recovery takes forethought, he said. The process includes steering clear of haphazard work and thinking the future will be the same as the past, and remembering that no one, from the individual to the federal government, can recover alone.

Still, Comstock-Gay pointed to Irene’s silver lining.

According to Comstock-Gay, the storm left more than 400 mobile homes eligible for federal disaster aid and 129 mobile homes slated for demolition.

The devastation to mobile homes, however, activated state and nonprofit agencies to solve long-standing issues for these homes.

The State Agency of Commerce and Community Development is looking into making mobile homes more energy efficient. The Legislature passed, for the first time, statutes protecting mobile home owners’ rights. The Vermont Workers Center, a grassroots group, has organized mobile home owners to start the conversation on fair and equal housing, said Comstock-Gay.

Towns like Wilmington and Waterbury, which had their downtowns flooded “are using this disaster to be better,” he said.

Vermonters have come together to help their neighbors filling the gaps left by the storm. This sense of community runs to the “heart of Vermont culture.”

“Vermont town meeting, despite the lowered participation, is the envy of the world,” Comstock-Gay said. “Each time we do these things, we build our civic muscles.”

And this strengthen’s Vermonters’ trust in their neighbors and community. “The secret in Vermont’s sauce is ... connectedness,” he said.

‘Vermont’s greatness’

Gov. Peter Shumlin closed the awards ceremony.

“When I was elected governor, I never thought my hardest job would be holding back tears,” he said.

Shumlin said Irene left behind 600 empty buildings in over 30 communities and more than $20 million in damages.

The governor pointed to Wilmington’s work since the flooding at a “symbol of Vermont’s greatness.”

People come to Vermont for its “quality of life,” he said.

But technical issues like the unfair taxing of local businesses while Internet companies go tax free, big box stores destroying downtowns, and disasters such as Irene threatened the quality of life.

The work of organizations like the trust have helped the state “fight the headwinds other states caved to,”said Shumlin.

“Our kids and our grandkids will say ’thank you for not walking away,’” Shumlin said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #156 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012).

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